The Privilege of Catechetical Instruction

“The Lord is the portion of mine inheritance and of my cup: thou maintainest my lot.
The lines are fallen unto me in pleasant places; yea, I have a goodly heritage.
I will bless the Lord, who hath given me counsel; my reins also instruct me in the night seasons.”
Psalm 16:5-7.

For Protestant Reformed young people, the Heidelberg Catechism is an ordinary part of growing up. We reach a certain age, and we study and learn it in catechism classes. It is good and right that this should be the ordinary experience of the covenant child. Covenant children are born and brought up in the light as their believing and godly parents are in the light. Godly parents know that God saves his elect children, and keeps his people from apostasy, in the way of spiritual instruction and discipline (Hosea 4:6). Yet for others it is not so ordinary.

The importance of this is simply an historical fact. It is the sad story of most of the Jewish nation, such that when the Lord of glory was set before them, they cried with the ungodly Gentiles, “Let him be crucified. His blood be on us, and on our children.” It is also the sad story of many of the regions which are now thoroughly under the grip of Islam. It is the story of much of continental Europe now too, in which there is scarcely a faithful Reformed church to be found any longer. And of course, it is the story closer to home, of my own forebears, the Irish and Scottish Presbyterians and Anglicans (and the legacy of Patrick is long gone). What Isaiah lamented concerning Israel could be said of Ireland and Great Britain too: “Except the Lord of hosts had left unto us a very small remnant, we should have been as Sodom, and we should have been like unto Gomorrah” (Isaiah 1:4-9).

Growing up within a modern Irish Presbyterian church (as well as in other groups in certain years, especially the Methodist church), I had no idea of how far we had fallen. Instruction was limited to a superficial five-minute “children’s address,” coupled with a few uninspired songs (which were at the least terribly inappropriate and imbalanced if not utterly heretical) and then for the rest of the service the children were banished from the congregation to take part in “Sunday School.” To call it school was perhaps false advertisement.

In some ways this was good for the children. They did not have to stay to be corrupted even further by the ambiguous and sensational platitudes of the hopeless Arminian “gospel” that was commonly put forward by the minister. Sunday school usually involved harmless crafts and games with cartoon Bible characters. However, it has been said that such cartoons place the Bible in the same realm as the trash that the children see on the television.[3] Children learn to equate Jesus Christ with Santa Claus; as something to grow out of. Seeing Noah’s ark depicted as a round bathtub-like object with a giraffe’s head poking out of a porthole is more likely to evoke laughter than awe. This is especially so when the child is simultaneously inculcated with the secular worldview for most of the rest of the week, at home and at school. The ark was not “cute.” It was provided graciously by God to save his elect church from the terrible destruction that he was going to rain down upon the entire world for their wretched wickedness.

All this meant that a young child in the Protestant Reformed Churches knew far more of the Bible and biblical doctrine than myself when I was of the age at which confession of faith would usually be made. Yet now, my eyes having gradually been opened, I am amazed and astounded. Most of all, I am awestruck and humbled at the sovereignty of God’s grace, that amidst such widespread apostasy, and despite the total depravity of my own heart making me as worthy of hell as any other, God spared me. God brought me to his ark to be saved through the day of evil (I Pet. 3:18-22).

My own experience of the Heidelberg Catechism is quite different. I did not grow up with such precious instruction. Instead I floundered through a morass of lies and vanity in confusion and ignorance for years before God lifted me out of the mire to see the truth of biblical Reformed doctrine. The heresies I laboured under sinfully and foolishly for years were many; Pentecostalism, Arminianism, and Anabaptism are the three main categories. These divisive, horrible and detestable poisons ought always to be exposed and condemned by antithetical instruction in the biblical truth. When I encountered the Heidelberg Catechism, it was with great skepticism and pride, but it was also with great earnestness and seriousness thanks to the patient and faithful labors of Rev. Angus Stewart. It is right that we ought to search the Scriptures to confirm whether these things are true, and thankfully the references and the many articles and pamphlets available on the CPRC website were so many signposts and maps to direct us to the light. But we ought to do this in the spirit of prayerful humility and meekness.

It is a terrible and heinous thing when covenantal instruction is so neglected and corrupted in an institution claiming to be a church of Christ. It is also evil when the children of the church despise and reject godly instruction when they ought to cherish it dearly as the very air they breath and the bread they eat. It is all too easy in our carnality, to take for granted the things that God has graciously provided us with. Official catechetical instruction by lawfully ordained ministers of the Word, given biblically, is the chief means of grace to covenant young people, and as such ought to be received as the voice of Jesus Christ as much as the rest of the biblical preaching. By his voice we are inwardly called to him, and united more and more with him through the Spirit which assures us who believe of everlasting salvation. His words are spirit and life, and without them, it follows that we neither have spirit nor life. Delight in the peculiar privilege of receiving catechetical instruction!